Baltimore County Now
Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman
In my 35 years in the Fire Service, I’ve seen how advances in technology, equipment and building codes have saved lives. One of the most important advances is one of the most humble: the small, inexpensive carbon monoxide detector.
Here in Baltimore County, the Fire Department responds to a growing number of calls involving carbon monoxide (CO) gas – and that is a good thing. Why? Because the calls are generated by CO detectors that are alerting residents to a potentially deadly problem before it becomes deadly.
In recent years and following a number of CO tragedies, Baltimore County enacted legislation requiring CO detectors in all rental housing and in some owner-occupied residences. During November, fire crews responded to 50 CO calls – none of them involving serious injury.
I can’t overestimate how dangerous CO – which kills by robbing oxygen from the blood – is. Carbon monoxide is produced during the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal, propane, wood. If your home includes an appliance that runs off of one of these fuels, CO is an issue for you. The causes of CO buildup are varied, everything from malfunctioning gas stoves to a blocked fireplace flue.
CO calls tend to increase during periods of extreme heat or cold, when houses are closed up tightly and appliances are running. Landlords and homeowners who have invested in energy saving enhancements – new windows, for example – should know that one downside to such energy efficiency is that it limits the air flow that helps dilute CO when a leak occurs.
In such homes, the deadly gas has nothing to do but build up – and because of its unique characteristics victims can be overcome without ever knowing what happened. You can’t see or smell CO, and the early symptoms – headache, nausea, aches – are so commonplace that people have no idea they’re being poisoned.
People ask, “What is the acceptable level of carbon monoxide?” The answer is that CO is not acceptable, certainly not over a long period of time. At low levels, it will make you sicker and sicker the longer you’re exposed to it. At high levels, it can kill within hours.
This is why the CO detector is so important. It tells you the gas is there. The detector sounds an alarm when the gas reaches 35 parts per million. This is a level low enough not to make you sick – at least not at first – but high enough to tell you something’s wrong.
Your alarm doesn’t do you any good if you rob the batteries or ignore it when it goes off. If it sounds, call 911 and get out of the house. Here’s what you can expect, once fire crews arrive:
- Firefighters will use special gas meters to measure the level of CO.
- Crews will attempt to identify the source of the CO.
- Crews will ventilate the house, mitigating the hazard by diluting the gas with fresh air.
- Firefighters will not attempt to repair heating units, water heaters, fireplaces and other fuel-burning appliances. Such repairs are the property owner’s responsibility.
- Firefighters will shut down and advise the residents not to use any appliance they believe is causing the problem.
- If you live in a rental property and the level of CO is 50 parts per million or more, firefighters will contact the Office of Permits, Approvals and Inspections. The building inspector will visit the site at a later date to certify that the problem has been repaired by a licensed expert.
Along with installation of detectors, basic home maintenance – cleaning your chimney and fireplace regularly, checking gas-fueled appliance connections on a regular basis – is essential to preventing problems with CO.
If you rent your home or apartment, ask your landlord if the building uses fossil fuel-burning appliances and make sure the property owner has complied with the law requiring CO alarms. If the answer is no, contact the Office of Permits, Approvals and Inspections at 410-887-6060.
Carbon monoxide alarms are inexpensive, easy to install, readily available and effective. There is no reason why any of us should fall prey to this particular hazard any longer.